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Con Report: DerpyCon 2014

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Brand new cons are exciting for all their possibility, but I imagine starting out has got to be tough. Even with the multitude of cons from which to draw inspiration or ask advice, defining the identity of a new one — deciding the not only the what, but how that what is to be offered — must be a difficult process. The inaugural DerpyCon, which took place at the Hyatt in Morristown, NJ from December 5–7 in 2014, chose to name itself after a small, mentally challenged horse. While this self-proclaimed multi-genre sci-fi con more than owned the adoption of its namesake in a few ways, the con itself was (for better and worse) not nearly the horror I was expecting and has a lot of promise depending on some crucial future decisions.

Location (Putting Its Best Hoof Forward)

Morristown is a great location for a small con. Not only does the Hyatt, walking distance from a train station, offer free (validated) parking, but the venue is surrounded by all types of eateries in a pedestrian-friendly, skyscraper-free, Chicago-like downtown. A bit of bad luck: Friday and Saturday were 24-hour periods of precipitation. This, mixed with the bitter cold, kept everyone inside the hotel and did not allow much chance to properly explore the surrounding area in order to catch a breath of fresh air (so to speak). This wouldn’t have been too bad if there were more distractions available at the con other than the hotel bar.

The venue itself was more than spacious enough to comfortably accommodate the con’s 727 attendees. (Whether or not that count was due to the aforementioned weather is anyone’s guess.) The panel rooms were tiny, with the smallest seating 15–18 people at most, and rarely full. In fact, many panelists spoken to cited empty rooms for multiple presentations. This could have been because of the general layout, which was initially a little bit befuddling for its rooms scattered between floors and inside and outside of the main registration area, but spending so much time inside at least fostered acclimation pretty quickly.

Organization (Not Derping Around)

Things seemed to be handled admirably for an inaugural event. My own experience with a vanished registration was handled professionally, courteously, and relatively quickly. Less could be said for details which really should have been ironed out well before the con got started, like — as I overheard while waiting for my registration issue to be resolved — whether the con’s dance was to be formal or casual. (It ended up being “optionally formal,” whatever that means, in case you were wondering.) DerpyCon provided attendees with badges, pocket schedules, and guidebooks that were of a quality on par with those of veteran cons. Signage was, for the most part, clear and abundant and branded to the nines, and staffers were very helpful and friendly in answering any other questions throughout the weekend. Despite its schedule's incompatibility with Windows phones, I’ll also praise DeryCon’s website, which was fully fleshed out with forums and an interactive schedule that let visitors check off and isolate events of interest. This did not seem like the effort of a first-year con.

Allocation of space in a small venue can be tricky. While sticking the sole video room between the Panels 4 and 5 seemed a poor decision in concept, the arrangement ended up being of little consequence in the end. Bleed-through from the sound systems in each room was minimal. Actually, I heard more sound from Panels 4 in Panels 5 than I did anything from Video 1 in either of the other two rooms. (I cannot speak to the effect of a similar arrangement of the karaoke room right next to the manga library.) Main Events, where the concerts and “Dance Party” were held, was situated well away from most goings on and thus very audibly isolated despite the obvious amperage (and at least one blown-out speaker).

Programming (The Big Derp)

Even though DerpyCon took its name from and was heavily branded after the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP:FiM) character Derpy Hooves, the programming was not focused on that cartoon. There were pony panels and events, of course, but they were vastly outnumbered by those dedicated to other fandoms. Despite my hopes and fears that this con would be overrun with psychotic pony proselytizers, DerpyCon felt more like an all-inclusive nerd con. While I’ve no complaints about this, other than the sheer disappointment of not being able to poke fun of MLP:FiM fanatics, I will take a second to rail against some of the presenters I encountered.

I wouldn’t even have to use my toes to count how many good panels I attended at this con. While most were either innocuous or offensively bland, a few were presented by incendiary personalities. The worst of the latter that I encountered: a presenter who went out of his way to emphasize his pseudonym ending in “-fag” (conveniently omitted from the con guide/website description) during a consequently uncomfortable and subsequently unfunny MST3K-ing of the Equestria Girls movie, and a group of presenters who were asked to clear the room but refused to “until they kick us out” despite the next presenters and audience members already waiting in the halls. There’s no real way to prevent the former, but it speaks to what was chosen for the programming tracks. As for the lingerers, con staff should have stepped up and evacuated the room. Tough skin comes with time though. And, obviously, I could not attend all the panels, so saying there was a total lack of interest is unfair. What sounded interesting to me, academic panels and their ilk, seemed lacking, however, and I spent a large part of the con trying to kill time.

Stuff and Junk and Stuff (When in DerpyCon, Derp as the Derpers Derp)

Mingling amongst the usual wares of the Dealers Room were a few unexpected rarities. There was a money pit offering figures (12 in. and othersize) from Space Battleship Yamato, die-cast Mach 5 replicas, and other classic bits of nostalgia at insane prices. Another vendor offered some absolutely gorgeous, Sailor Moon-inspired tree ornaments that were laser-cut from wood and olive oil-cured with scorch accents and intricate cut outs. Artists Alley, in addition to a ton of stuffed sushi, offered a decent representative mix of the usual fan/original prints as well as official DerpyCon merch. The standout offering here consisted of large feathers made into quill pens featuring painted images on their lacquered surface.

Something a little more unique to this con was the Traveling Pony Museum, which promised “exemplary works by talented fans.” The tour guide for this 10 x 10 ft. room — lined and filled with tables featuring plushes, paintings, prints, and other works of (fan) art inspired by MLP:FiM — also promised works based off of both the old and new My Little Pony series. While there was plenty of fan art inspired from MLP:FiM, the sole example of art from the original series was a lone(ly) record of the soundtrack. A record player, I was told, would be in the following day (Sunday) to play the sultry sounds of Danny DeVito. As Artist Alley-typical as this all sounds, there was actually one piece of real magic: a handmade storybook; one page was ceremoniously turned every hour on the hour.

From indie games that employed everything from standard controllers to the Oculus Rift to standard FPSs and LAN-party brawls on more recent consoles and mobile platforms, the video game room was a small but successful offering. I’ll cover the games I played during the Indie Games Showcase in the forthcoming panel report. Working my way from the electronic to the primitive, I did spend a decent chunk of time in the tabletop room … throwing rocks. The game was Attraction, which is akin to marbles but with magnetized rocks. Sometimes it’s the simplest of things that are the most addictive. Or maybe desperation is the best spice. Either way, people were constantly in the tabletop room, which offered a decent selection of distraction for all manner of traditional gamer.

So, Should You Go? (The Lowderp)

DerpyCon had the weather working against it from the start, but bad weather cannot be blamed for what was otherwise a pretty trying con experience for a panel-hopper such as myself. Guests were better than what is expected for a small, first-year con, but more high-profile fan panelists might be better in terms of content and draw (and economy). On a similar note, I’d like to see a small con do away with “Ask a Character” panels but also realize that those types of panels may be the necessary evil for initial attendance growth. Either way, stronger panel choices would be appreciated. As a panelist and panel attendee, I’d also advise 10–15 minute breaks between panels for setup/breakdown and travel time. Also, kudos must be given for opting for live music via two actual bands. (Related: sympathies to the bands and DJ that played to crowds of 10–20 people.)

I had a decent enough time at DerpyCon, but there just wasn't enough content to compel me to make the 1.5 hour trip a third day in a row. The con’s heart is in the right place and its framework is solid, so all that's left is for the organizers and the fans to come together to build it year by year with increased focus and more appealing/targeted programming. It's close enough that I'll check back in 2015 with high hopes.


For more Derp, derp here.

Snapshot: Humanity in Brief (Parasyte)

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Parasyte revolves around mysterious, well, parasites that fall to Earth one night. As their eggs hatch, the parasites instinctively seek out the nearest compatible bioorganism and take over its brain. Upon successful antibiosis, hosts lose their free will/consciousness. Their flesh sacks, however, gain strength and agility and the ability to morph. The main character, a human named Shinichi, manages to stop his would-be intruder halfway up his right hand. This and similar interruptions to the gestation cycle, which prevent the host's neural network from being hacked, forces the parasites to assimilate whatever body part they entered and live on as part of a symbiotic relationship.

Many will loathe me for making the comparison, much more so for doing so in a favorable light, but Parasyte, much like Alien: Resurrection, contemplates the definition of humanity via attribution. Is what we each consider self our electric thoughts? Is it the blood pump upon which we poetically project our emotional vulnerabilities? Our blood itself? Is it the skin we cannot take off without bleeding and the common shape the bones beneath lend its silhouette? How much of that, exactly, could be cut away or changed while leaving something distinctly and universally identifiable as human? Ironically, Parasyte answers this with a single question posed by a foreign body.

Cut off from its life-sustaining host by a mere symbiote, a fully evolved parasitic amalgam has precious seconds worth of consciousness left. It doesn’t shriek in pain. It doesn’t curse its killer. It asks one simple question: why.

The nature of the question is largely irrelevant. The organism isn’t looking for the meaning of life or trying to ascertain where its consciousness might be headed after the unshakeable blackness takes over. This is about simple cause and effect. Desperate curiosity. With its last bit of bodily sustaining fluids, the organism needs to know. Will the actual answer matter? In the immediate sense: no. What does matter, however, is that some answer is given.

Whether aggressively or passively so, humans are curious and persistent problem solvers by nature. If a question that really matters to its asker is left unanswered, a lack of response is bound to rattle around the brainpan until answered by someone else or some suitable logic is settled upon.

Since the lack of time in this case rules out the possibility of thorough rumination, a decisive answer is needed to prevent regret. With the assailant’s simple, factual explanation (abbreviated in the screencap series to the left to avoid spoilers), the inquisitive organism can die at peace with circumstance. Since this being was at least partly human by way of components, its curiosity begs the question of just how much more the parasite might have leached from its host than it intended. At the very least the scene asks us if the need for answers is a fundamental part of being human.


Parasyte is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


 

Snapshots is a monthly column in which one of our writers reflects upon a particular moment from an anime, manga, or video game. New entries are posted on or around the 15th of each month. To read previous entries, click here.

 

Drunken Otaku: A Consumption More Important than Murder (Speed Grapher)

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Meet Captain Hibari Ginza of the Tokyo Police Department. She’d make a great drinker if it weren’t for the fact that she’s usually only drunk with the euphoria that comes from the pursuit of fulfilling her detectively duties. Ginza, unfamiliar with not being in control, thus looses what little inhibitions she has and exacerbates her blatant selfishness when she chooses to imbibe. Well, I shouldn’t say “chooses.” After all, drinking is much less a choice than it is a destination when insecurity persistently proposes the possibility of a cheating lover and pictures of his presumed plaything are plastered city-wide. Add to this a crime wave threatening to flood her beat, and this great moment in drinking should be one all too familiar for those feeling overwhelmed by life.

While off screen and off the clock in Lips and Lies, there’s nothing to divert Ginza’s glare from images of her assumed rival in love — a loli held aloft in lingerie — on every product and billboard in town. So Giza, like anyone trying to forget, tries to take refuge by numbing herself with a few rounds. But as we all know, life is not so kind as to allow such a respite. A call about an alley murder interrupts Ginza’s self-pity session, and she races down in hopes of finding something interesting.

What she finds, however, is an irritatingly cheerful rookie who pretty much already has a handle on this random attack. Ooooh, multiple stab wounds, he seems to croon as he tries to engage his callous coworker. Ginza’s rotgut-ravaged mouth hisses her disinterest up his nostrils. After the shit she’s seen go down and heard about — men of rubber, women of diamond, decapitations, gruesome mutilations, underground explosions   —a random killing (even with multiple stab wounds) just seems banal and irksome for so being. With the crime scene pretty much figured out without her, Ginza leaves to do what every drunk, interrupted mid-drunk, does: drink.

While this is obviously not great behavior in any respect, it is a fairly accurate account of the contemptuousness and selfishness inherent in the human mind addicted to the depressant known as alcohol. You wanna feel low and wallow in that sorrow? There’s no better friend than a bottle whose warm embrace lets you sink into the Yangtze. Giza’s consumed by a sense of passion recently awakened by jealousy and exploited by circumstance, so the only thing left is distraction.

But when everything around is a reminder of that which is trying to be forgotten, be it a mundane existence or those pesky human emotions, eliminating some neurons via bittersweet poison is an oft-sought method of self-medication for many. Under its guiding influence, consequences seem less palpable, and all that really matters is the next drink. And as any drinker will tell you, signaling for another round, refilling the glass, or taking another swig from the sweet open lips of the bottle before you is, perhaps, one of the most comforting simplicities of this often wretched world.


Speed Grapher is streaming on FUNimation.com and available via FUNimation's Store, RightStuf, and Amazon.

Impressions: Day of the Devs 2014

My take on three games at the indie showcase

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A couple weeks back I attended Double Fine's "Day of the Devs" event in San Francisco, a showcase for a number of in-development indie games. I only stuck around for an hour or two, but I did get to play a couple of pretty cool games. Below, check out my slightly belated impressions of three of the titles.

GNOG

The first game I played, a puzzle game called GNOG (pronounced "nog"), was created by the experimental game design collective KO-OP. The main thing that drew me to GNOG was its art style—a bit like Super Mario Galaxy, with bright colors, matte textures, and a slight glow around the edges of some objects, but a developer at Day of the Devs told me the lead artist was planning to change the art style soon to make it slightly less cartoonish. Technically, GNOG is about vanquishing monster heads called "gnoggins." Instead of fighting them, however, you turn them around to reveal rooms inside of them and then solve puzzles on both their face and their internal room to get their mouth to open up. It’s a kind of surreal concept that doesn’t really make a ton of sense, but it’s fun to tinker around with the environments—clicking on objects to discover how a lever on one side affects the position of a pipe on the other side. Essentially, GNOG is a series of desk puzzles and has a similarly absentminded appeal. GNOG is supposedly coming out "later this year" according to the official website, though there isn't much time left for it to make that deadline.

 

Please Don't, Spacedog!

Please don’t confuse him with Nintendo’s resident spacefaring fox. Please Don't, Spacedog! is a bizarre Oculus Rift game that mainly exists as an experiment in minimal in-game communication. The developers present you with a physical control panel on a table with nearly a dozen knobs and buttons that correspond to those within the in-game spaceship. Once you boot up the game and take a look around your neon-colored ship, you’ll notice the titular Spacedog, panting happily in the copilot’s seat, sitting upright, wearing … an Oculus Rift? (This recursive Oculus reality was surreal enough to consume my analytical capability for the majority of my time with the game.) Without any direction on how to use the control panel, you have to figure out what causes what and use the inputs to launch your ship and escape from an Andross lookalike. The lack of feedback showing my hands’ positions in the game made it hard to figure out what knob I was using. As a result, I fumbled around like an idiot for most of the game. The developer demoing the game explained that different players had different amounts of trouble with the lack of hand-eye coordination afforded by the game. Spacedog isn’t exactly “fun” in the way we expect games to be, but the developers explicitly intended it as a psychedelic puzzle where the biggest mystery is the control scheme itself. In that sense, it's an interesting experiment. Unsurprisingly, this is another KO-OP production. It's only available in installation form, so if you see it at an event, give it a try!

 

Night in the Woods

Night in the Woods was the highlight of my time at Day of the Devs. You play as Mae, an anthropomorphic cat wandering around your sidescrolling hometown, interacting with townspeople, and scurrying across the rooftops and along telephone wires. Mae's got a lot of personality too — she's a sarcastic college dropout who dryly reminds her mother early on, "Mom. Mom. MOM... I'm 20." For the 10-15 minutes I played, nothing particularly notable happened, but discovering the delightful world of Night in the Woods was satisfying enough for me. You can break mailboxes by jumping on them (at which point your surly neighbor yells at you), there are birds all around that scatter when you run past, and there are tons of hilarious side-stories and bizarre characters to find. In general, there’s a lot of attention to detail that makes the world fun to simply exist within. Lurking under the surface is what seems to be a bleak coming-of-age story; Mae takes notes in her journal on the direction of her therapist, who is trying to treat her for previous violent episodes. Imagine Ghost World but with animals. It seems like there’s a lot more to discover here, and the self-aware angst in every line of dialogue is some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen in a video game in a while. I’m looking forward to the game’s 2015 release.

The Trap Door: And I Love You So

They Were Eleven (1986)

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They Were Eleven Splash DVD coverThere’s something about the works of the Year 24 artists. Banding together to make stories for themselves after reading other authors' work like Osamu Tezuka, they were one of the first groups of all-female creators in Japan. One of them, Moto Hagio, would carve out a career writing stories that both challenged and refined the ideas of gender and sexual equality. One of the stories she wrote that was adapted into a full theatrical film is an amazing look at paranoia, self-reflection, and one of the most tender love stories it’s been my pleasure to witness in anime. It is the incomparable They Were Eleven.

Set in the future, They Were Eleven is about 10 students of a galactic academy who are taking their final test before graduating the school. This school teaches only the best and brightest, future leaders of men and all that. So the pressure on the students is enormous. Tada, a slightly telepathic human, is part of the group. When they arrive at their assignment, a giant space hulk that has seen better days, they realise there are 11 people in the group. Without any time to process this, they are thrown into their assignment by means of a temporary crisis. Then the academy test is laid bare: they must survive for 53 days. They must all work together to survive and if one of them fails the test, they all fail. They can call for help if they are really stuck but once they call, they also fail the test.

The film itself is a very tense And Then There Were None-style story except here, nobody is dying one after another; they will all die if they don’t learn to work together. We find that the people onboard come from all walks of life. Princes, scientists, thinkers. All of them are a cut above the rest of the galaxy. But while they can figure out how to defuse bombs and reduce the heat build up, they can’t ignore the nagging suspicion that the eleventh person in their group is up to no good. As the film moves from one crisis to another, directors Dezaki and Tsuneo Tominaga deliberately take a higher ground, never showing the eleventh person as malicious or evil. Rather, this might just be a test to see what the students do. We do have a moral center in the form of Tada. A bright lad, his village elder helps him grow as a person and instills in him a sense of moral courage to do no evil intentionally if he can. Tada tries his best to keep his comrades in good spirits and comes between people when tensions run high. He worries that he’s not good enough but his test is whether or not he can do his job and still make the right choices during the test. The character of Frol sparks rankling in the students for her brash manner of speaking and acting around people. The others put that down to where Frol comes from, but I can see that if I were Frol, the fact that I come from somewhere shouldn’t be the deciding factor in whether I’m a good person. By them declaring her to have no graces just by her manner, the students who initially look down on Frol are all the more shamed when she displays the right stuff when the going gets tough.

They Were Eleven splash 1

Frol is the most interesting character in the bunch outside of Tada and I’m also not discounting the amazing stories and development the others go through, because they really do get enough time to express themselves. Some get more than others, but we learn enough about them to see that they are good people, but this test is driving them nuts and making them see shadows that aren’t there. Back to Frol. She's described, designed, and portrayed as a girl because that’s what she thinks she is (from what I can tell she is described as a hermaphrodite but that is the characters description not mine), but here's the kicker: if she passes the test and graduates, she has a chance to undergo gender reassignment and become a man (this is something she wants for reasons that I can’t go into here without spoilers). She doesn't want to be a girl as on her world, women don't have the opportunities that men have. For the others, failing just means repeating the exam. For Frol, failure means being made to be a woman. But meeting Tada changes both of them in interesting ways. She thinks of him as a wimp and when she's a man, she'll be tougher than him. But he takes Frol as she is, doesn't change his mind about her. Even when they discover her reasons for taking the exam, Tada still treats her the same way. There is a moment, not saying where, when the two characters lay their cards on the table, and the result is as tender as it is shocking. The ideas presented in Frol and Tada's relationship say as much about the interchangeability of hetero and homosexual love is as it does about the blurry lines between genders. I guess what I’m getting here is the film gives an amazing account of why who you love is not nearly as important as why you love them. It makes me ache to get my hands on the original manga and see how it was portrayed originally (given that it’s been made into a one-shot TV drama, this film, and a theatrical stage production). What makes Tada and Frol work so well together is that the film’s resolution doesn't hang on them falling into sync with one another, but their own resolution does. 

They Were Eleven splash 2

Some might say that there are too many plot holes and to be fair, there are a fair number of coincidences in where the test is, how the ship goes from one crisis to another and how Tada has an answer for everything. The beauty of the film is that as we go along, not everything is coincidence and not everything was planned that way. Plus, the people who laugh at the film's gaps miss how the film boils itself down to a gut wrenching decision and all the jokes, drama and bits bolted on fly away. This for me, makes They Were Eleven all the better that it had the courage to do this. Setting out into the film, neither the cast nor the audience would have believed the decision they reach. 

They Were Eleven splash 3

The cast do a fantastic job  getting across that these characters are real people. The Japanese cast features some heavy hitters in the form of Norio Wakamoto,Tesshō Genda, and Toshio Furukawa, with Tada and Frol being played by Akira Kamiya and Michiko Kawai. Kamiya and Kawai work so well together that I was afraid to listen to the English dub. But this is a CPM dub handled by Animaze (it no longer exists at the time of this review) so Curtis Jones is Tada in English and none other but Wendee Lee is Frol. Jones plays Tada with some reserve and a tiny bit of shyness at the beginning, growing into the character as he goes. Wendee Lee plays Frol with a US Southern accent and is all bluster and mouth giving way to a small amount of insecurity as the film progresses. When she breaks down, my heart kind of breaks every time. For my money, they pull off the roles perfectly. Bringing up the rear, vets like Steve Blum, David Hayter, and Dorothy Elias-Fahn fill out the rest of the students.

They Were Eleven is the type of film that rarely, if ever, gets made. Told from a completely innocent point of view, the film shows the reality of suspicion, the loneliness of fear and the liberating power of true, honest and healthy love. Not just between two people but between all peoples and all walks of life. Wrapped up in the shawl of a sci-fi, it has the elements that make up a wonderfully powerful drama. At only 90 minutes, it’s over too soon but lingers long in the memory. It arrives back from testing and passes with flying colours from the Trap Door.


On the 25th of every month in "The Trap Door," Phillip O'Connor tackles one forgotten anime title to find out whether it deserves to be rediscovered by the anime community. Click here to check out previous entries in the column.